You probably don’t know who Sturgill Simpson is — and that’s your loss. But it’s okay, because not a lot of of people do, though that’s about to change. Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth has already won Best Country Album, and it’s still in the running for a a surprise Album of the Year. If a country concept album with a Nirvana cover seems like an odd choice next to Lemonade, 25 and Views, that’s because it is. But again, that doesn’t take anything away from Simpson. Here’s a quick primer to getting acquainted with country’s dark horse at the Grammys this year.
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1. He had a very country upbringing
Simpson grew up in southeast Kentucky. His mother was a secretary and his father was a state policeman. He’s the first male on his mother’s side of the family to not work in the mining industry, and he came back to Lexington, Kentucky after three years in the U.S. Navy and some time spent in Japan and Washington state.
2. A Sailor’s Guide to Earth is his first major-label record
A Sailor’s Guide, which Simpson wrote and conceived of as a kind of welcome letter from the world to his newborn son, was released on Atlantic Records in April. Prior to that, he’d released two independent albums, High Top Mountain and Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (a play on Ray Charles’ classic Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music), the latter of which was also nominated for a Grammy (in the Americana category) and received numerous critical plaudits.
3. He’s had some wide-ranging … experiences
One of the biggest talking points of Metamodern Sounds was the lead single “Turtles All the Way Down” which invokes an old theological/philosophical meme about the world being located on the back of a turtle, itself perched on another turtle… all the way down. “There’s a gateway in our mind that leads somewhere out there beyond this plane,” Simpson sings in the song, “where reptile aliens made of light cut you open and pull out all your pain.”
Oh, and the song also just lists off different hallucinogens: Marijuana, LSD, psilocybin and DMT. Describing his experiences with drugs to Rolling Stone, Simpson said: “I had some pretty introspective, therapeutic, healing [experiences]. You see the fabric of reality ripping apart in front of your eyes, and you’re staring at the ocean and breathing along with the tide, and all of a sudden you understand that you react to things this way because of something that happened to you when you were 4, that you’d buried.”
4. He’s got a great band
Like any good country boy, Simpson has a serious band backing him up. With the release of Sailor’s Guide (which featured soul revivalists the Dap-Tones as part of its ensemble) it’s been expanded to include a full horn section, but just search YouTube for “Sturgill Simpson guitar solo” to find a bunch of serious players dissecting the slide and country licks all over his albums.
5. … and great taste in covers.
Aside from the aforementioned Nirvana cover on Sailor’s Guide, Simpson’s been known to cover everything from Willie Nelson to Led Zeppelin live. “Really, all good music is just soul music,” he told NPR in 2014.
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